Men like to categorize things. Even sexually transmitted infections: There’s the terrifying (HIV/AIDS), and then there’s everything else, like the infections that produce a rash or a bruise to the ego but typically disappear with prompt treatment.
But human papillomavirus (HPV) deserves its own category. It’s different. For one thing, it’s shockingly common. You’ve probably had it at least once, and you may even have it right now. But perhaps the scariest thing about HPV is the side effect it leaves behind: an increased cancer risk. More American men than ever—9,100 a year—are developing throat, tongue, and tonsil cancers thanks to HPV, and according to the latest CDC estimates, the rates keep climbing. HPV can also cause penile or anal cancer too, two diseases on our list of the worst ever.
How can you stay safe? It’s complicated. But we have some lifesaving advice.
A woman can be tested for HPV with her Pap smear, but there’s no FDA-approved HPV test for men. A study in JAMA Oncology suggests that nearly half of men are infected.
The virus can be detected in cells from the mouth, penis, or anus, but since collecting good samples from those areas isn’t easy, the results of these tests are often inaccurate, says Eric Buhi, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the Center for Research on Sexuality and Sexual Health at San Diego State University. “There’s just no perfect place to test where cell changes occur regularly, like with the cervix,” he says. The rectum may be the best spot, but these tests aren’t routinely recommended.
Ask for a test if you have anal sex and/or HIV, both of which raise HPV risk. “The main argument against screening has been that it’s not cost-effective, but growing evidence is starting to suggest that it is,” says Buhi.
Set Up Barriers
When you discuss STI testing with your partner, ask about HPV. If she’s tested positive, don’t assume she’s had a huge number of sex partners or cheated; HPV infections are quite common and can show up on a test long after the exposure. When in doubt, use a condom. It’s not a perfect solution, since HPV is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact and you’ll rub up against plenty of flesh even with a rubber on. Still, condoms are helpful. In fact, research published in the Journal of Infectious Diseasesfound that men with multiple sex partners who always used a condom had half the HPV risk of those who never wrapped up.
If you’re single, then you’ve already made condoms a no-big-deal routine, right? But what about giving oral sex? That’s where the dental dam comes in. You place this thin film of latex or polyurethane over her vagina before you get down to business. It’s not weird. It’s smart. In one study from the University of Washington, only a small percentage of men used dental dams during oral sex, but not one of those men had oral HPV infections. Order Glyde dental dams, which are cleared by the FDA to reduce infection risk (shop.glydeamerica.com, $10 for six). A cut-up condom or even a piece of plastic wrap can also work, says Stephanie Marhefka, Ph.D., of the University of South Florida department of community and family health.
Get the Vaccine
You’ve seen the scary commercials—young boys and girls grow up and develop cancer because their dumb parents failed to take them to the doctor for the HPV vaccine. Even though the HPV vaccine is recommended for all kids at age 11 or 12, only 28 percent of teenage boys have completed the three-dose series, according to recent CDC numbers. Step it up, dads! What’s more, the vaccine, which boosts immunity to nine strains of HPV, isn’t just for kids. Most private insurers cover the HPV vaccine for men up to age 26.
Even if you’re older than that, the vaccine might be worth paying cash for (about $250). “If you can afford it, it’s worth it,” says Stephen Goldstone, M.D., of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. Here’s why: If you’ve had only a few sex partners, there’s a good chance you aren’t infected with all nine cancer-causing strains covered by the shot, he says. That makes the vaccine an especially smart choice for, say, newly divorced guys back on the dating scene. And for men who have sex with men, it’s a must-have, says Dr. Goldstone. After all, the cancer risk from HPV can multiply. In a study in the journal Preventive Medicine, men who had a cancer suspected to be linked to HPV had an increased risk of a second HPV-associated cancer in the years that followed.
Open Up to Your Dentist
Four times as many men develop HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers as women. That’s because men seem to have a harder time clearing oral HPV infections than women do, research shows. So make sure your dentist does a cancer screening at every visit. Dentists are trained to examine the soft tissues both inside and outside the mouth, and they can identify suspicious lesions and refer you for a biopsy if necessary, says Katharine Ciarrocca, D.M.D., of the Dental College of Georgia. In addition, watch for signs on your own, like a persistent sore throat, trouble swallowing, hoarseness, ear pain, enlarged lymph nodes, or unexplained weight loss. HPV-related oral cancers have better survival rates than non-HPV oral cancers, especially if they’re caught early.